Jussie Smollett was allegedly in regular contact with the men initially suspected of attacking him
After Empire star Jussie Smollett reported he’d been beaten in a hate crime at 2 a.m on a Chicago street last month as the rest of the city was bunkered against one of the coldest nights of the year, police were skeptical but took him at his word.
“To be perfectly honest, from the very beginning we had questions,” Chicago Police Superintendent Eddie Johnson said at a news conference Thursday.
Those questions hounded Smollett, 36, for nearly three weeks before he was arrested Wednesday on accusations he filed a false report for what police allege was a hoax he staged with two acquaintances to boost his salary on the hit FOX TV show.
“When we discovered the actual motive,” said Johnson, “quite frankly it pissed everybody off.”
Smollett’s attorneys have promised an “aggressive defense,” to the felony charge of disorderly conduct by filing the false report. After he was first named a suspect and then formally accused on Wednesday, Smollett turned himself in to authorities at 5 a.m Thursday morning, police said.
Police said several factors helped crack the case, which is still under investigation.
Interviewed at Northwestern Hospital after the alleged attack early on Feb. 29, Smollett claimed he’d been beaten by two masked, black-clad men who shouted racial, homophobic and “political statements” at him, hung a noose around his neck, threw bleach at him and then fled on foot, police Commander Edward Wodnicki told reporters,
Police reviewed hundreds of hours of video from surveillance cameras, starting with those focused on the street near the reported incident. The alleged attack itself was not captured, but police quickly obtained and shared images of two men “that we believed were the likely offenders,” he said.
Authorities were able via surveillance video and witness accounts to backtrack the men’s movements to a ride-share service whose pay account revealed their identities. “That was the lead that we needed,” he said.
Police then discovered that the two men, who they’ve identified as brothers, had traveled to O’Hare airport and left the country using round-trip tickets to Nigeria, with a scheduled return to Chicago on Feb. 13.
The interim allowed police to issue more than 50 search warrants and subpoenas for phone and other records that showed the men had been in contact with Smollett — including one hour before the alleged attack, one hour afterward, and while they were out of the country, said Johnson.
Police met and arrested the men upon their return. But after the men requested an attorney, Gloria Schmidt, “she came to us and after speaking with these two people of interest, she said that something smelled fishy,” said Wodnicki. “She came to me and said, ‘You really ned to talk to these guys, I’m going to allow them to give you a video interview with us present and we’re going to have you hear their story. They are not offenders, they’re victims.'”
Said Wodnicki: “It was at this time that this investigation started to spin in a completely new direction.”
PEOPLE has not been able to reach Schmidt for comment.
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Authorities were legally able to detain the two men for 48 hours without charging them. But not until the 47th hour, said Johnson, did they allegedly confess their participation with Smollett, eventually claiming that he’d paid them $3,500 to stage the incident.
The men were released from police custody, and the revelation shifted the focus on Smollett from victim to possible culprit, he said.
The incentive for the brothers, who have not been charged, was financial, said Johnson, who added that police have obtained the $3,500 check — and that the brothers were promised another $500 upon their return to Chicago.
Johnson suggested that Smollett allegedy recruited the brothers — at least one of whom worked on the set of Empire — for their “bulk.”
Prior to the alleged attack, “Smollett attempted to gain attention by sending a false letter [to himself] that relied on racial, homophobic and political language,” said Johnson. “When that didn’t work, Smollett paid $3,500 to stage this attack and drag Chicago’s reputation through the mud in the process.”
“And why? This stunt was orchestrated by Smollett because he was dissatisfied with his salary, so he concocted a story about being attacked.”
He added: “The brothers had on gloves during the staged attack where they punched [Smollett] a little bit, but as far as we can tell, the scratches and bruising that you saw on his face were most likely self-inflicted.”
What lies ahead for the brothers is unclear.
“The fact that this was staged, and that Jussie hired these two guys for his benefit and then spin this into a criminal investigation put them in a really tough spot as well,” said Wodnicki. “They were arrested for a hate crime, and only because of the incredible work by the entire [law enforcement] team did we get to the point where we were able to get the truth from them.”